Recommended Books

Catherine stared out into the drizzle. ‘The 80s are going on for ever.’

-Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

Books covered: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

I like to try books that people recommend to me because I’d never pick them out myself. These two were recommended by one of my managers at the bookstore. I’d never heard of Claire Messud, and I’d heard of Alan Hollinghurst, but he wasn’t high up on my list of authors to try. 

The Emporer’s Children is about a three friends in their late twenties in New York City in the months leading up to 9/11. I was cautious about the premise because I think events like 9/11 are often used as unnecessary plot points. When I started this book I realized I also didn’t like Messud’s sentences. They didn’t flow well for me, and I actually put the book aside for a few weeks before I realized that I missed the characters. That’s why my manager had recommended it, for the vivid characterization, and that’s what brought me over to be a fan of this book. Messud does a fantastic job of showing us the personal lives of these three people, and the way they respond to the culture of the early 2000s (one’s a filmmaker, and two are writers). What I loved by the end was how secure they all thought they had been, and how much their attitudes towards work and romance changed in the months after the act of terror. No one in the book is entirely likeable, and Messud’s tone is largely satirical, but the last chapters are moving in a way I hadn’t expected. 

The Line of Beauty is a big, impressive book–it won the Man Booker in 2004 and it’s about a gay English man coming of age in 1980s Conservative society. Hollinghurst is a great writer, and the book moves really quickly. He manages to capture the confidence of upper-class society so well that even though I knew all of the ramifications of unprotected sex before AIDS awareness, I was still surprised when the disease started to affect the main character’s immediate circle. The book’s protagonist is an aspiring writer and an academic. While Messud was distanced from her characters’ pretensions, Hollinghurst leans into it. I had trouble relating to detailed descriptions of classical compositions and Henry James novels, and I didn’t understand some of the comparisons between say, a tennis serve and the way a certain movement was played on piano. Despite this, though, I was very moved by the book. Great coming-of-age books make us wistful for the more innocent days, and while the increasing danger of illness is an obvious reason for nostalgia, Hollinghurst has his character grow for many more reasons than AIDS. By the end of The Line of Beauty, I missed the younger, sweeter world of the first one hundred pages. 

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